Sunday, September 30, 2012

Choose the Spoon: Reflections on Imperfection after Two Years Dreaming

Two years ago today, I had my first and only panic attack. Jennifer and I and our almost-two-year-old, Tyler, had flown red-eye from Boston to London, then taken an hour-and-a-half taxi ride from Heathrow Airport to the Kings Crossing train Station that cost us about half our savings. Then, the train ride into York cost us the other half of our savings.

We had chased down a dream of ours, and we arrived (finally) into York amidst cascading waterfalls from the skies (some people call this "rain"), a massively overtired toddler, basically no money, and a whole heck of a lot of hope. We were changing roles, changing countries, changing cultures, and we were (to be honest) pretty naive about the whole thing. My mantra was, It'll work out.

When the panic attack arrived that night at three in the morning two years ago, a question had arisen in my mind responding to the mantra--simply, this: What if it doesn't work out?

And, as it turns out, a question like this at three in the morning doesn't exactly bring peace. Or hope. or trust. Or really anything good. Finally, Jen helped soothe the attack, and I fell asleep. But the following weeks were filled with that nagging question, What if it doesn't work out?

Fast-forward two years. Jen and I are standing in the kitchen our our little rented home, and fireworks are going off. I'm not talking figurative fireworks; I'm talking a real-live firework show occurring a stone's throw from our kitchen window. Reds, yellows, blues--all sparkling and blasting and booming. And Jen and I can't think of any occasion.

So we decide something: it's our two-year anniversary of chasing down a dream--even though it may have seemed half-baked at the time. Because it had to be half-baked. If we had fully baked that dream two years ago, we would have pulled it out of the Oven of Reality Checks, stuck a fork in it, and remarked, Whew! That baby is toasted! No good!

Two years later, life still hasn't afforded us much more certainty--except, maybe, a line that Atticus Finch constantly told his children: It's not time to worry yet. The more practice we have trusting, waiting, hoping, and believing that things will be alright, the more we learn to, well, trust, wait, hope, and believe that things will turn out alright.

Tyler: Looking UP!
In her stunning novel, Middlemarch, George Eliot shares this quip: "Even Milton, looking for his portrait in a spoon, must submit to have the facial angle of a bumpkin." Maybe the greatest English poet of all time can't withstand the force of certain reflections, and would have to deal squarely with his own imperfection. I guess this is true of all of us: in one way or another, we're all bumpkins. And we either accept that fact about our experiences, our dreams, our views, saying, It's not time to worry yet, or we don't.

After two years of this adventure abroad, I choose the spoon. Because when all is said and done, I think the spoon prevents a panic attack much better than a crystal clear mirror. Sometimes, we don;t need to see and understand everything perfectly; rather, we need just enough to get by, just enough to keep taking one step of faith after another. And maybe, we bumpkins can laugh a little while we walk.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Literature?

I'm at the University of York Library now, sitting across from Ali, a man who emigrated from Turkey to the UK in the 80's, and after a couple decades in London, is now at York earning his MA in Social Work. Ali talks with a wide smile, laughs often, and after a few minutes, we connected about our common love of the Russian novelists.

"Dostoevsky!" Ali shouts in a whisper, above the construction noise from three floors below us. We sit at opposing desks by a window that opens onto a panoramic view of the upper portion of campus.

"What was your favorite novel of his?" I ask.

"Crime and Punishment, definitely Crime and Punishment. I read it three times--and every time Raskolnikov's inner life is more and more rich, more complex than the time before!"

I remember reading the book a decade ago when I was in England for a year abroad. My professor gave me one week to read the thing, and--as a slow reader--I spent about nine hours a day reading. I was enthralled by Raskolnikov's mental premise that God does not exist, and that truth and love, therefore, are imagined notions whereby no absolute actually justifies or negates any of our actions. Instead, Raskolnikov posits, how we think about things is what makes them so.

So Raskolnikov commits an act of murder against someone towards whom he feels no hatred. If his premise is substantiated, then he will be able to continue on with his own life and feel no deep remorse, no inner turmoil.

He cannot.

Raskolnikov's every move becomes more and more laborious, his very heart is ripped inside of him, and it is only the love of Sonia--a woman who sees the very depths of his violent action and loves him nonetheless--that "saves" him from being forever lost to his own notion of nothingness.

In short, Sonia, thorugh action, shows Raskolnikov both the power of love and the power of grace--and that our words, our actions, our lives matter. Nothing is for nothing. God exists, and Dostoevsky writes his soul out to prove love in a way that no research, how-to, scientific, or analytical book can.

In short, literature proves love.

Ali asks me what I'm working on in the library, and I tell him about the novel in progress, Fortress, about a Palestinian boy and a Jewish girl--both of whom have emigrated to America due to violent attacks on each of their families near Gaza. They become friends through an unlikely encounter at the high school, and through a  run-down movie theater in their town, a Grandma with Alzheimer's and her precise recollections of 12th century York, England, and a court case, their friendship creates something neither of them could have expected.

Ali nods, explains that he is from Turkey, and says that we need literature that aren't often popularized in the mainstream.

When I ask him what purpose literature serves, he looks away for a few moments, then looks back at me with a broad smiles and he laughs. "Novels show us voices and stories we might never have known."

As Ali continues working on his essay for his Social Work class, and I work on the novel, every once in a while we look up and talk over the small end-boards on our desks. I ask him what the essay is about, and he says it explores mental health care in the U.K. He asks me why I type so fast with my pointer fingers. I can only laugh for a reply.

Working across from Ali, the world feels small. In a good way. Not only is literature a bridge for compassion and understanding of other characters and situations, it is also a way to enter into the life of another--however brief that entrance might be.

And when a man from Turkey and a man from America can meet in a library in Britain and talk about their love for Russian literature, it the truth of Dostoevsky's claim feels pretty dang solid: literature proves love. And maybe that's why we get lost in a truly great novel: because as we read, something about us is found.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Guess Who

We recently borrowed the classic game of Guess Who from the York Toy Bus, and for the past five days our house has become a veritable Guess Who Tournament Locale--which has, of course, caused me to see life through the paradigm of Guess Who. And guess what?

There are an awful lot of wonderful, kind, generous, and compassionate people all over the place--from the sidewalks here in York where Tyler and Jen and I travel (read: where we also sometimes feel kind of like aaahhh, no more sidewalks, give us something that moves fast and gets us places in less than a forty-minute walk) to the hometowns of Windsor and Sandwich where we each grew up.

In Guess Who--in case you haven't played in twenty-five years (which was my guess-whoish-gap), the object of the game is to discover your opponent's chosen person (Hans, Stephanie, Daniel, so on) by asking a series of yes or no questions. Each time you learn more information, you close the tiny little doors to cover up more people who don't fit the bill. As Tyler is still three, the game goes more like this:

Tyler: Who is the person you chose?

Daddy: I chose Hans [a perennial favorite of mine].

Tyler: Oh, okay, now let's guess who your person is! Does your person look like this? [points to Hans]

Daddy: Yes!

Tyler: Oh, cool! Now let's try to guess all the other people!

In transferring the wisdom of Guess Who to the bigger game of life, there are days when gratitude is so immense for the people who wait with gaping smiles behind so many doors.

People like Joan, an 82-year-old woman who lives one street away from us, whom Tyler and I see almost every day as we walk to the swings. Joan is often accompanied by her fraction of a dog, and she greets Tyler and I smiling. We stop and talk for five or ten minutes about the weather, about what York used to look like forty years ago--when she and her husband first moved her--and about how she doing since her husband died five months ago. Joan is a warm person who loves watching Tyler be, well, Tyler, and it's hard to fight for joy since her husband passed, but Joan wakes up every day and tries.

People like Ian, a 55-year old man who works at the Co-Op across the street and whose white-gray beard hangs almost low enough to act as a secondary broom. Ian smiles wide and talks like talking is what matters in life--asking how Tyler likes pre-school, sharing wisdom from his own years parenting two daughters, and describing the lovely places of York he recommends we visit.

People like Tom (who, when he first told me his name, I mistook for "Tub" and called him that for far longer than I should have), a man who own a small plot of land near the River Ouse and keeps hens, grows raspberries, and keeps bees to make divine honey. Tom isn't much of a talker, but he'll let Tyler bring home a fresh egg or two, taste some perfectly-ripened raspberries, and show Jen and I and Tyler his bee-keeping getup with a wide smile. Tom's wife, Maureen, once gave us two sunflowers and they grew taller than Tyler.

These people--and many more like them--I find on the good days, when the writing is going well and Tyler is behaving and sleeping at night, and it isn't raining cats, dogs, and alligators. And that's cool. But when I find these people in my path on the hard days--when Tyler has been up coughing or with nightmares, and the umpteenth rejection of a certain manuscript becomes an excruciatingly heavy load to bear, or when finances just seem too tight if we can't go for that cup of coffee I was craving...then seeing these people matters even more.

Because in the moments when little makes sense, and little feels secure, or when little things just feel, well, BIG--then seeing people like Joan, Ian, Tom (Tub), and Maureen--it becomes the difference between hope and despair.

And when--in those quiet, contemplative moments--I zoom out on life a little, and look across it rather than into only the turf I'm standing on, I see that these kinds of people have always been there. Always are there.

People like my mom and dad, Kathy and Harry Reynolds, who had their fair share of pain and obstacles raising five boys (all of us bearing our own set of problems and challenges) and the struggle to survive working jobs they might not have loved, waking up at night for hospital visits, nightmares, asthma attacks, allergy explosions, and whatever else we threw at them: they kept fighting. They worked hard to love us with all the strength they had, and they kept fighting for their marriage, too. I watch them now--taking trips, holding hands, catching a movie--and they seem to me metaphorical for going forward, even when Life knocks you down. And their mantra to me and to my brothers is inspiring: there's a place for you; keep dreaming; keep believing.

People like my in-laws, Susan and Wendell Anderson, who are some of the most generous people I know. They open up their home and make people who come by for a party, a meal, or an overnight (or a few) feel as though they're home. This past visit to America, eating Susan's divine cooking and watching all the organic, healthy stuff that goes into it, and watching Wendell teach Tyler how to be a dentist, it's beautiful to see how they give, and give, and give.

People like librarians, who chat to you when you're taking out a book, letting you know they loved it, too, and you're in for a treat.

People like fifth-grade teachers you see after a guess-whoish-length gap, who remember your name and you remember theirs, and you're suddenly over the moon about all the stuff that they taught you which you didn't always remember or realize all along.

People who simply remind us that even though life dishes out it's fair share of pain, rejection, and foiled plans, along the way there are all these doors, too. Doors behind which smiling faces--akin to Hans--are waiting to connect with you. Perhaps with a small conversation about the weather, perhaps with a raspberry or two, perhaps with a smile that sometimes helps provide the smallest crack in the veneer of despair.

I'm grateful, grateful, grateful for the presence of these people in my life, and I hope that Jen, Tyler, and myself can be a part of somebody else's game of Guess Who. I hope that the doors we open to see despair broken in our own lives help us be the kind of blessing that hides with giddy, kid-like glee behind the doors of somebody else's turn.

Maybe, after all, Philo said it best: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is engaged in a battle." And maybe Jesus said it even better than that, "Love your neighbor as yourself." I don;t know if Philo or Jesus ever played guess who, but I'll venture my own guess and say if not, they'd love it.

Because guess what? Love matters, and it matters in the tiniest ways we can't even begins to imagine. Big acts of great love, yes, but also the tiny acts of love that might otherwise seem inconsequential. They never are: every microscopic act of love strikes a blow to the hard ground of despair. And it isn't long before the frozen soil cracks, and we find that we can now plant where we once wept.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What We Could Be: An Interview with Editor Stacey Barney

Ever since I first met Stacey Barney, an editor with G.P. Putnam's Sons, in 2009 at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference, I have been deeply inspired by the books she edits, the passion and poise with which she works, and the love of stories she shares. So I'm especially ecstatic to share her lovely interview, below!

You've worked as both a teacher and an editor. Can you share any reflections on the similarities and differences of these two vocations? 

I haven't been a teacher for more than ten years, so it's really hard to name specific similarities this far away from those classroom experiences, but I can say that my love of literature and the high I get from sharing good books remains the same. The students I taught have long since become adults with lives, jobs and children of their own, but I like to think the middle school or high school souls that still exist within them would be proud of the books I help bring into the world.

What most helps you sustain your belief in the power of stories and words? 

The stories themselves and a talented author's ability to make me feel something with their words and make me believe in the power and good of people. There are more of these stories than not and I'm so happy that after all this time, I still hunger for them and find myself satisfied by these powerful stories and words in a way that's truly life-affirming and renewing.

What do you think are some of fiction's most noble endeavors? 

I'm not sure I completely understand the question, but I'll answer it in two different ways and we'll see if either way gets the job done. If the question is what are some of the most noble endeavors (i.e. works) of fiction, it's fortunately a long list. A few of my favorites are To Kill a MockingbirdThe Things They CarriedPraisesong for the WidowAnother Country,Orange Laugter and The Book Thief. If the question is what noble endeavors does fiction seek to accomplish, my answer would be fiction's most noble endeavor is to mirror us not as we are, but as what we could be. Such a mirror would be at turns dark, hopeful and inspiring, but always riveting.

What makes you laugh so loud you're afraid of intense embarrassment? 

I don't embarrass easily and I laugh a lot. Loudly. Just ask my office-mates. Laughter is a by-product of joy and that should never be embarrassing. So what makes me laugh? Lots. Usually, unexpected truth and I'm definitely laughing with appreciation. Oh, and Golden Girls! Still! ;-)

Who or what do you admire? 

Every author on my list. It's a brave thing to write and be vulnerable on the page.

Stacey Barney is an Editor at G.P. Putnam's Sons. Some of her recent titles include Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor, The Lions of Little Rock by Kristin Levine and the forthcoming Black City by Elizabeth Richards.